Émigres: The transformation of Art Publishing in Britain

Behind the beautifying of British Books


By Anna Nyburg

Phaidon, £39.95

Few people would now dispute the extraordinary contribution made to British cultural and intellectual life by (in Daniel Snowman's memorable phrase) the "Hitler Émigrés". To date, however, no one has focused exclusively on the important role played by such figures - cultured, sophisticated and assimilated Jewish members of a "Mitteleuropa" middle-class élite until Hitler declared them persona non grata - in the world of British publishing, and art publishing in particular.

This book is a visually striking one, if self-consciously, even idiosyncratically old-fashioned - no doubt in homage to the tradition of fine design established by the publishers under scrutiny within its pages.

Fluently written with a low-key and ironic sense of humour surfacing at regular intervals, it effectively conveys a sense of the complex but fruitful relationships, both personal and professional, between a small group of forceful movers and shakers. Notable among these are Béla Horovitz and Ludwig Goldscheider, who transferred the already well-established Phaidon Press from Vienna to London in 1938, and Walter and Eva Neurath, founders of Thames and Hudson (the rivers flowing through London and New York) in 1949.

1930s Britain was not the cultural desert it is sometimes made out to be

Nyburg also gives lesser-sung heroes such as Wolfgang Foges, founder in 1937 of Adprint, the pioneering book packaging company and Otto Neurath (inventor of the Isotype system of pictorial statistics, still in use today) their due, as well as acknowledging the part played by home-grown figures such as publishers Stanley Unwin and Oliver Simon.

Britain in the 1930s was clearly by no means the cultural desert it is sometimes made out to be. Useful insights are also provided into the intricate practicalities of the art-book trade. Along the way, we meet a host of other interesting characters - Ernst Gombrich, Herbert Read, Andor Kraszna-Krausz, to name but a few - who took the benefits of international cultural exchange for granted.

The book is also notable for Anna Nyburg's sensitivity to the story of displacement, loss and pain underpinning an apparent success story, and to the complexities and paradoxes of German-Jewish identity.

Less satisfactory is the attempt to provide a wider historical, political and artistic context for the activities of the key players. Some of the background information is too basic and insufficiently nuanced to be useful.

It is odd, too, in a book that stresses the centrality of a close integration of text and image to the ethos of these publishing houses, that the colour plates are bunched together in no apparent order in the middle of the volume, their relevance to the main text not always clear.

Running my hands over a magnificent volume on Pablo Picasso published by Thames and Hudson in 1955, purchased recently in a provincial second-hand bookshop, it is hard not to murmur nostalgically: "Ah, they don't make them like this nowadays…"

On the other hand, so widely available these days are the reasonably priced, well-illustrated, jargon-free kind of art books to which both publishing houses were committed (not least in the enduringly popular Thames and Hudson World of Art series, started in 1958), that it is easy to forget just what a pioneering cultural achievement this was.

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